Dealing with eating disorders in the workplace

Eating disorders are psychological conditions that can last for 12 months or longer. As such they can be considered a disability under the Equality Act 2010, and therefore should be treated in the same way as any other disability in terms of employer responsibility.

Eating disorders don’t always have an impact on their work or attendance. However, the condition can lead to a number of physical health issues that can have a detrimental impact on their working life. Early signs and symptoms are usually:

  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Lack of focus and attention
  • Lack of self-esteem and confidence
  • Lack of energy
  • Shaking, trembling hands (a sign of low blood sugar levels)
  • Mental and physical exhaustion
  • Depression and anxiety
  • Mood swings
  • Increased sickness absence (due to their low immune system)
  • Hospitalisation (in extreme cases)

Managers are not there to be a counsellor or to encourage the employee to simply eat more but they are there to signpost them to appropriate support, for example occupational health referrals, employee assistance programmes and any other assistance the organisation can offer (e.g. mental health first aiders).

It will help managers to understand in which group the employee sits. Those who deny they have a problem will perceive any help from the manager, HR or occupational health professional as people who are out to sabotage their efforts.

As such, pushing the label of ‘anorexia’ or ‘bulimia’ etc. should be discouraged. Instead allow the medical professionals to approach the symptoms rather than the label, and how these directly affect the individual to carry out their work.

Recovery for those from either group will most likely be in the form of psychological help in the form of habitual reprogramming like cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) or cognitive analytic therapy (CAT).

As a crucial reminder, managers should avoid direct encouragement to the employee’s progress. This may sound heartless and contradictory to manager best practice, but any words of encouragement (‘you’re looking healthier’ or ‘you’re looking great’) will be heard by the sufferer as ‘you’ve gained weight’ or ‘you’re not a slim as you were before’.

Instead, managers should always ask the employee how they feel they have progressed; if they feel they are getting better and healthier, the manager can voice their encouragement by working with their feeling better.

It is HR’s responsibility to coach managers in managing employees who are experiencing mental ill-health, including eating disorders. Applying discretion with attendance and performance policies should be adopted, as with any long-term health condition.

HR should also work closely with managers when making reasonable adjustments where appropriate. Adjustments can include allowing reasonable time off to attend therapy or adjusting attendance trigger points proportionately.

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